There are three
problems with When China Rules the World:
The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
by
Guardian columnist Martin Jacques. The first is the title and its two central
theses. The second is its length – at 435 pages before you even reach the
appendix, bibliography, and end notes, it is quite a tome. And the third is the
amount of economic minutiae into which the book dwells to try to prove its
absurd point.

This is by no
means a light read for a Sunday afternoon or for the flight from Washington to
Beijing. Even for die hard historians, economists, political scientists and
other academic types, this book is heavy going. Unless you enjoy picking
through economic data and mulling over the meaning of the “nation-state” in
Western and Eastern philosophy there are probably better books to be read.

But the main
reason to not bother with it is because it is fundamentally flawed on its two
central theses.

The first is that
China will rule the world. Indeed even Jacques points out that this statement
is wrong. When he says China will rule the world, he doesn’t really mean that
China will rule the world. He means
it will be one of four or so new hegemonic powers – the others being the other
BRIC economies, Brazil, Russia and India. To support the point he does assemble
quite an array of economic data and he points to the fact that until the 17th
Century just two countries – India and China – contributed two-thirds of global
GDP.  He boldly states that “By the middle of
this century, when the West will be responsible for a great deal less than half
of the world’s GDP, the Age of the West will have passed.” 

This is old hat.
Investment bankers and economists have long been telling us that China will be
the world’s largest economy by 2025 or 2050 (depending on which one you trust).
But this economic inevitability – is it inevitable? – does not necessarily
translate into world dominance. What kind of political leverage would the BRIC
economies have over the rest of the world when most of them – sorry, all of
them – are crippled by endemic poverty and systemic corruption? Isn’t it more
likely that as their economic stars rise, that their political stars will wane
as they come under internal pressure for reform?

Unfortunately
Martin Jacques doesn’t consider this because central to his thesis is that
China is what he calls a “civilization state” and that this makes it
fundamentally different to the nation-states that have hitherto ruled the world
or exercised hegemonic influence over it (the European powers and the United
States). Jacques expresses it thus:

“For the Chinese –
and the same can broadly be said of the other Confucian societies – the state
is seen as a natural and intrinsic part of society, as part of the wider common
purpose and well-being. The state, like the family, is subject to neither
codification nor constraint. The Chinese state has never been regarded in a
narrowly political way, but more broadly as a source of meaning, moral
behaviour and order. That it should be accorded such a universal role is a
consequence of the fact that it is so deeply rooted in the culture that it is
seen as part of the natural order of things.”

While much of what
he points out about the Chinese civilization-state is true, the fact is the
same can also be said of Western nation-states. Although we are not given to
quoting Aristotle and Plato as much as the Chinese like to reference their
ancient philosophers, the fact is that Western democracy owes a good deal to
the Roman State and Greek concepts of democracy and citizenship, and even to
Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the Enlightenment and the
Treaty of Westphalia. (You can’t discuss this without getting into heavy
stuff.) The sad thing is we have forgotten the central tenets that make our
concept of a nation-state also civilizing. In this very sense ours too is a
civilization-state.

But, for the sake
of argument, let’s concede for a moment that Jacques is correct; that China is
a civilization-state and the West is something altogether different. What does
it mean? To Jacques it means that the Chinese will want to rival us and will
want to see the world function according to their conception of the state: “In
fact, the challenge posed by the rise of China is far more likely to be
cultural in nature, as expressed in the Middle Kingdom mentality.” 

In other words, China
(and the Chinese) believing itself to be the centre of the universe, the Middle
Kingdom, will expect the rest of the world to pay homage to it.

However, the
fundamental flaw with this conception is that many educated and well-to-do
Chinese question the reality of the concept of China as the “Middle Kingdom”.
They wonder, if the concept is true, why China has fallen so far behind the
West over the past 200 years – indeed, why was it failing even before Communism
came along and really messed things up?

Educated and
affluent Chinese even wonder what is fundamentally wrong with their education
system that stifles creativity and innovation. And those that can afford it
send their children abroad – to the West, primarily to Europe and America – to receive
educations that will better equip them for the modern world.

The reality that
Jacques has conveniently overlooked is that many Chinese – despite a growing
sense of nationalism – still see much about Western civilization, of Western
democracy and tolerance, as more attractive than what is offered by their own
morally bankrupt system. Indeed, the Chinese refer to the Fourth of May
Movement that brought about the First Chinese Republic under Dr Sun Yat Sen as
“China’s Enlightenment” – it was heavily influenced by Western concepts of
parliamentary democracy. And the Tiananmen protesters of 1989 constructed a
mini-statue of the lady that adorns New York Harbour as the symbol of what many
of them laid down their lives for. Most recently, more than 8,000 people,
primarily Chinese dissidents living inside China signed “Charter 08” calling
for greater political freedom and democracy in the country. (Notably, Chinese
living inside China cannot read about these because the Internet is so totally
censored.)

But Jacques
overlooks all of this because, to him, “In the Confucian
view, the exclusion of the people from government was regarded as a positive
virtue, allowing government officials to be responsive to the ethics and ideals
with which they had been inculcated.”

However, this is a
monumental oversight and very sloppy academic work, indeed, from a Cambridge
PhD who is currently a professor at the London School of Economics. Jacques simply
fails to discuss the concerns of the countless Chinese who question an
officialdom that is systemically corrupt and which denies the people a voice. Consider,
for example, the parents whose children perished in collapsed school buildings
when the Sichuan earthquake struck two years ago while government buildings
stood firm.

These Chinese
don’t look back to Confucius for a response but forward to western-style
democracy for a solution. They are left out of the book because they do not fit
Jacques’ worldview. (Did I mention that Jacques used to edit Marxism Today and was the co-founder of
the left-leaning think tank Demos?)

Proof that
Jacques’ thesis is entirely flawed is that the successful Confucian cultures of
East Asia – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore – are the very cultures
that have embraced Western-style democratic systems, at least to some extent.
These nation-states are civilization-states in the Western concept and their
successes are based on open economies and political systems that, if not entirely
free, are more open than the mainland Chinese system; and they all certainly aspire
to greater democracy along western lines.

While Jacques may
be right that the peoples of East and South East Asia might be rushing to learn
Chinese because of the mainland’s economic pull, he is entirely wrong that they
are looking to China for political leadership or a model for government. Even
the historically Chinese regions of Hong Kong and Macau had to be dragged into
reunification with China. Taiwan is resisting until it sees fundamental
political change on the mainland.

Recent history
notwithstanding, democracy and open economic systems still have much going for
them. But Jacques’ book is not entirely a waste; my copy now serves as a
totally functional doorstop.


Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based
business consultant.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.